Don’t fear failure so much…
It is so common, it seems as if it must be innate; that is the fear of failure. Even very young children seem to have a fear of failure but it cannot be innate – or can it? Children learn that there are consequences to what their parents and educators perceive as failure. Take colouring outside of the lines as an example: if a child colours outside the lines, is this really a failure? Children learn at a very young age that they are rewarded for socially conforming behaviours like colouring in the lines and following instructions but they are punished, scolded, or at the very least given the look of disappointment for not conforming. Very quickly a child learns that if they follow the rules they have nothing to fear, but as they age, they quickly learn that even following the rules is not enough – you must excel. Whether learning times tables, algebra, chemistry, or any sport, most children learn that those who win are celebrated and those who don’t are not treated the same. They try desperately to win next time to avoid disappointing others and even themselves. Perhaps we are taught to fear failure?
A recent article in Psychology Today said that there really only five five innate fears:
- extinction (dying)
- mutilation or losing a limb
- loss of autonomy or loss of one’s sense of self
- separation or shunning from society
- ego-death – fear of humiliation or shame
The article goes on to describe that all other fears are rooted in one or more of these five. It seems possible that the fear of failure relates to the fifth fear – ego death or fear of humiliation. If we assume that this fear of our ego being crushed is real and innate, we must consider the effect that we have on children and not feed into an innate fear of humiliation or shame. As a parent and as a college professor, I see first hand how an ego which has died a million times can either diminish the sensitivity or paralyze the person to the point they refuse to even try to achieve more for fear of another ego death. Clearly some people have a natural resiliency to an assault on the ego.
Perhaps we need to accept ego-death for what it is – real. If we start with the idea that none of us really want our egos crushed, even when we are very young , we can start to turn the game around. Perhaps “failures” need to be re-branded. In one of my last posts I wrote about how Edison had to fail at thousands of light bulbs before the one filament did not break and illuminated the glass. If children could explore failing and develop their own sense of what feels right to them and what feels wrong, they can learn the value of failing. I believe failing should be the new goal and a requirement in learning. Maybe we need to set up the safety net so kids can go and see what it feels like for them to not accomplish something before learning their own tricks for success. Certainly some failures must be corrected sternly. A child who runs without looking across a street must be corrected and taught that failing to look both ways has catastrophic consequences. On the other hand, having a kid learn a skill but not finding immediate success must be viewed as part of the journey on the bumpy road to ultimate success. Perhaps when teaching a kid to colour, we just hand over the crayons and walk away.
A child or young adult who is not okay with viewing failing as an opportunity for learning becomes an adult paralyzed with fear of failure. They become the adults who would rather accept the life that is safe and has less chance of failing than living the life they really want and accepting the failures along the way. Every person that we view as successful today, has a story which is often built on the number of times they failed. The ones I admire celebrate their failures for the rest of us to learn that failing is okay and part of the process. Perseverance should be the objective in the pursuit of one’s life ambition lest we want a world of conformists and a population with a preference for mediocrity. All of my heroes were passionate people who stood for what they believed and were willing to risk it all, including failure, to live the life they dreamed about.
Michael Faraday is one of my heroes. He was a scientist who died in the late 1800’s . He is best known for his discovery of the invisible magnetic field that exists around a wire. He had numerous other discoveries which makes him one of the most important scientists in history. He was born to a poor family in England. He never received a formal education. He learned because of a passion for learning. His first contact with science was attending lectures by prominent scientists of the time from tickets that were given to him by a benefactor. Later, he managed to become an assistant in a lab and eventually was awarded a teaching position in chemistry. His perseverance led him to many discoveries in chemistry and electromagnetism. He was to be knighted but he refused. He was also awarded the opportunity to become President of the Royal Society; he turned it down twice. He was a principled man who when approached by the British Government to assist in the development of chemical weapons to be used in the Crimean war, refused for ethical reasons.
I have great admiration for those who have made great accomplishments in this world by having the determination to succeed and the perseverance to continue on despite obstacles and failures which would have caused most people to abandon their dreams or more likely to never even begin.
I am always inspired by this quote from Louis E. Boone, “Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.”